One day, a man walked into a clothing store in New York City and saw a jacket he liked. He took it to the front counter, paid for it and left.
It sounds like an ordinary day for anybody else. But for John Lennon, it was a mind-blowing, new experience.
Obviously, the details of Lennon’s life have been well-covered in other movies, books, even his own songs. But the new documentary “LENNONYC” benefits from narrowly focusing on Lennon’s love affair with New York, and his hope that even one of the most famous people in the world could live a normal life there. The movie premiered last week on public television’s “American Masters” to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Lennon’s death, and is now available on DVD.
The film covers all the events in the last decade of the ex-Beatle’s life, from his anti-war activism that nearly got him deported to his drunken binging in Los Angeles to his healing relationship with his young son, Sean. But as the title suggests, the film comes back again and again to New York City, where Lennon and Yoko Ono lived from 1971, when they fled the brutal British tabloids in London, to Dec. 8, 1980, when Lennon was assassinated by Mark David Chapman.
One of the most striking things about seeing the archival footage of Lennon from that era is how the man who once proclaimed his band to be “bigger than Jesus” seems so unassuming. We see him walking through Central Park arm in arm with Yoko, occasionally stopping to sign autographs for some fans, but often ignored by passersby.
When he does take the stage, playing benefit shows with anti-war activists like Abbie Hoffman or with his own band, he doesn’t carry himself like a star. The movie includes interviews with the sidemen, producers, recording engineers and others who Lennon worked with, and one of the recurring comments is that Lennon didn’t like the idea of being a solo artist. He liked being part of a band, jamming with other musicians, flying under the radar. It was an unassuming philosophy that he tried to carry beyond the recording studio, too.
The movie isn’t the definitive take on Lennon’s life and, given that it has the close involvement of Ono and Lennon’s friends, it paints a rosy picture of the ex-Beatle. But fans will appreciate this window into Lennon’s later years; he was mellowing happily into a middle age full of creative energy and parental bliss. Until it was cut short.
Of course, there are plenty of other movies that feature Lennon, both real and fictional. The definitive documentary has been 1988’s “Imagine: John Lennon,” which covers the entire arc of Lennon’s life, and for which Ono made tons of archival footage available. The scene where a fan breaks into Lennon’s country estate, and instead of calling the cops Lennon invites him to have breakfast, and lectures him on the perils of celebrity worship, is unforgettable.
Lennon’s anti-war activism, and the Nixon administration’s attempts to kick him out of the country, are explored in more detail in the documentary “The U.S. vs. John Lennon.”
On the fictionalized front, the BBC recently released a film called “Lennon Naked,” which looked at Lennon’s last few years in Britain, including the break-up of the Beatles and his meeting Ono. The film is clearly a sensationalized account, but benefits from an uncanny performance of the Beatle by Christopher Eccleston, best known as the first “Doctor Who.”
Aaron Johnson (“Kick-Ass”) did a good job playing a cocky teenage Lennon in “Nowhere Boy,” which only played for a week at Point and comes out on DVD on Jan. 25. Ian Hart makes a convincing Lennon in 1994’s “Backbeat,” which looks at the Beatles’ early days playing in Hamburg.
But no survey of Lennon on film would be complete without “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” and Paul Rudd’s absolutely hilarious cameo as Lennon, his Liverpool accent ridiculously thick. Ono probably didn’t like it, but I’ll bet Lennon would have laughed.